Academics Turned Founders: Andrew Preston, Publons

The Authorea Team

Peer review is an important issue in scholarly communication.  Arguably, it is the defining characteristic between a blog and a scholarly article. Authorea believes in exploring new models of peer review in ways that peer reviewers can be rewarded and recognized.  Accordingly, we offer authors and the public at large the ability to annotate documents, to write post-publication peer reviews, and to post work immediately and openly.

Publons, an innovative young company co-founded by Andrew Preston and Daniel Johnston, was started specifically to improve how peer review is coordinated, accomplished, and rewarded.  We've known Andrew for a few years and are happy to have him as our first interviewee in a new series we're calling Academics Turned Founders.
1. Can you tell us a bit about yourself?
In physics we have the concept of particles with names like electrons, photons, phonons, gluons, etc. While I was doing my PhD, one of my professors - a good friend of mine - introduced me to a new kind of particle, the publon. A publon is a hypothetical particle representing the minimum unit of publishable material. It’s a joke in academic circles about the relentless pressure to publish more. And that is where Publons came from.
2. What’s your academic background? What did you study or research and why?
I studied economics and physics and did a PhD in condensed matter physics. Economics to understand society and physics to understand the universe.
3. Why did you start Publons
Peer review is at the heart of research. It grew increasingly obvious to us that great peer review helps advance human knowledge faster. Expert reviewers refine breakthrough research and prevent bad science from crippling the rate of discovery. At the same time we were seeing all sorts of online sites start to help people highlight their expertise in similar areas (StackOverflow, Quora, etc). It just became obvious that there needed to be a place for expert peer reviewers to be recognised for their contributions.
5. Did you know anything about starting a company?
Only what I’d read!
6. What was the easiest and hardest part of starting/running the company?

Easiest:

Building the first version of the platform. It’s a lot of fun to start building something new!

Hardest:

Quitting my postdoc was a pretty tough decision. It’s one of those turning points where you know that once you leave there’s little chance of returning (in this case to academia). Beyond that, it’s taken quite a while for the industry at large to recognise peer review for what it is - the critical foundation upon which all credible science and research is built. It’s promising to see some great momentum now (see our recent partnership with BMJ) and a commitment to strengthening those foundations so we can build out the tower of human knowledge to unprecedented heights.
8. What would you like to communicate to your audience/users most?
Bad science delays science, so don’t underestimate the value of your peer review contributions. Expert peer review enhances groundbreaking research and weeds out fictitious science that can harm society. Publishers are beginning to get behind this - by the end of the year more than a thousand journals will be integrated into Publons. So join the tens of thousands of other researchers highlighting their expertise on the front lines of peer review. Peer review is not a marginal activity any more. Get involved and help us fix the process!
9. What advice would you give to others that may be thinking of doing something like you?
Tell the story! It’s become increasingly clear to me that a simple emotional story is what people engage with. In our case it’s very tempting to talk in detail about the time it takes to review a paper or the nuances of the peer review process when what really matters is that Publons is here to speed up science by reviving peer review. Honouring, encouraging and improving expert peer review will help us advance human understanding and realise the future faster.
10. Who are some of your mentors or sources of inspiration?
I’ve been reading a lot about Andy Grove of late. The guy was born in Hungary - survived WW2, and escaped the communist regime when he was 20. Came to the USA, learned to speak English, did a PhD in solid state physics, wrote books on physics, management, business strategy, along with a biography, grew Intel to a Fortune 50 company, survived prostate cancer… You get the idea.
11. Favorite quote or saying?
“Peer review matters”

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